"What does one call those words?
Words that walk like sighs"
— Lal Singh Dil
'Words that walk like sighs' is as apt a description of Lal Singh Dil's poetry as any. Dil was a poet and a revolutionary, a destitute Punjabi Dalit who spent his life searching for a place and an ideology in which he could be free and equal at last. One of Punjab's most celebrated poets; he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness and died alone and in penury. But despite the many hardships and disappointments he faced, the enduring lesson of his life and poetry is not one of pain and injustice, but of hope and a stubborn refusal to give up.
Now, five years after his death, poet-journalist Nirupama Dutt has translated his memoirs and a selection of his poems in a 165 page anthology titled 'Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs and Poems of Lal Singh Dil'. It starts with a foreword by editor-publisher Prem Prakash (who published the original memoirs in Punjabi in 1998), in which he reflects on his interactions with Dil and comments on a certain incoherence and feverish intensity in his writing.
This is followed by an expansive and touching introduction by close friend Nirupama Dutt. She talks about her long friendship with Dil – which she calls 'a bond of pain' – and attempts to provide important context to the memoirs that follow, supplementing her observations and insights with little anecdotes that illuminate different facets of Dil's personality.
The memoirs themselves are written in an understated, matter of fact tone. Dil avoids long-winded polemics and even when life is at its lowest, there is no trace of self-pity. What you get is a sincere and honest narrative, informed by a deep rooted awareness of injustice.
Born to a low-caste Ramdasia Chamar (tanner) family in a village near Manto's home town Samrala, Dil was introduced to the experience of caste injustice at an early age. He starts his memoirs with an incident that happened when he was in class II or III. He followed a "Brahmin who resembled Tagore" into a pool where the Jat boys were bathing and got thrashed for his efforts. Insult was added to injury when his mother had to apologise to the mother of the boy who attacked him. This is one of many small injustices and experiences that, everyday as they might seem, informed his understanding of the world he lived in.
Dil was the first of his family to go to college, financed by the sale of his mother's earrings. It was in college that he started taking his poetry seriously. It was around the same time that he had his first brush with mental illness, which he attributed to the struggle in his head between romance and revolution.
Already interested in Marxism, he also started interacting with Leftist intellectuals and his poetry finally started to get attention in symposiums. He even had a few poems published. But he could not escape the spectre of caste oppression, be it in college or in the supposedly egalitarian Left.
Dil avoids long-winded polemics and even when life is at its lowest, there is no trace of self-pity. What you get is a sincere and honest narrative, informed by a deep rooted awareness of injustice.
By the time the Naxalbari revolt broke out, Dil had dropped out of college and was working as a daily wage labourer to make ends meet. A passionate supporter of the Naxalbari movement, he started by pasting pro-movement posters all over the town. Dil writes engagingly about his experiences as a Naxalite, culminating in a dramatic – albeit failed – attack on a police station.
What follows is a surrealistic and heart-breaking account of his capture and torture at the hands of the Punjab police. When he is arrested, he tells the cops: "Do not malign me by slapping a false case of opium or cocaine on me." The police oblige by charging him with possession of a revolver he did not have. His torturers taunt him and call him "a bloody Chamar". Even while dealing with enemies of the state, the upper caste policemen reserved their worst torture for those revolutionaries who were of lower castes.
After spending three years in prison, Dil went underground and travelled to UP. Seeing another opportunity to escape caste oppression, he converted to Islam. At the end of his memoirs, he returns to Samrala, where he started a tea shack and spent the remainder of his life drinking, making tea and writing poetry.
Dil's struggle against oppression is one of two dominant strands in these memoirs. The other is equally unsuccessful – his search for love and companionship. Starting with a 'Sikh girl with two plaits' from his college, his memoirs are full of unfulfilled fantasies. The Sikh girl died. His engagement to another girl fell through when her family found out about his health problems. Others rejected him because of his caste, or his background or his politics. His inability to form friendships and relationships with women haunted him, but he never gave up. The same stubborn romanticism that fuelled his revolutionary ideals also kept this hope alive. As Nirupama Dutt says in her introduction: "Lal Singh Dil has assumed many roles in his life. But through it all he was a lover, a poet and a madman, all in one."
The memoirs are followed by a 30 page section which has a selection of Dil's poems. And what beautiful poems they are, infused with a sense of longing and of indignation at life's injustices. Even if some of the inflections and allusions of the original Punjabi are lost in translation, the poems still have the ability to cut straight to the heart. In 'Just A Thought' he writes:
"Forlorn, I contemplate a single thought: that your oiled hair would bring me salvation..."
A lifelong search for love, encapsulated in just four lines. In other poems, he expresses his pain and anger in raw, emotionally charged verse.
Taken together, these memoirs and poems give us an in-depth understanding of the life and personality of a poet struggling to find justice in a world where justice is exceedingly rare. Lal Singh Dil is no more, but his poetry – and his struggle – live on.